30 September 2012

killing me softly with his song

Last night I was back in Berkeley to see the Shotgun Players production of Sondheim's Assassins, a musical revue featuring presidential assassins and would-be assassins, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. Given the subject matter as well as America's tortured love affair with both guns and presidential power, the show became instantly (and I assume intentionally) controversial, though this seems to have helped as much as hurt its continuing stage life (it's already been revived on Broadway, after its 1990 premiere, and at least one of last night's actors has appeared in two other local productions, each time as a different assassin).

The stage is set up like a carnival tent, run by the Proprietor, a carnival barker selling chances at the shooting gallery, and our merry band take turns telling their tales. We start with Booth and Lincoln but after that the stories are woven together in an historical fantasia that follows a theatrical rather than a factual path. Each assassin plays supporting roles in the other's stories. The dead speak to the living, and the living speak to each other unconstrained by geography or mere fact. That is not meant as a criticism; though the show is in a sense a history lesson, it's a history of dreams and disappointments and possibilities and impossibilities, rather than of who did what when and where to whom according to reliable records. ("Why" is always up for debate, no matter what type of history it is).

The basic idea of the show is to take one of the primary delusions of American individualism - that anyone, just by hard work (apparently any sort of work, as long as it's "hard"), can become successful - can even become President! - and invert it to draw attention to the dispossessed, disappointed, and disgruntled: if you can't become President, maybe you can become a presidential assassin, and change history that way - the view being examined here is very much of individuals shaping history, their own or the country's, as if there are no larger historical or economic forces at work.

The ethos of Individualism as a significant and powerful force also emerges in the American love-hate relationship with celebrity, which is another major theme of the show: assassination (as Booth points out, "murder" is for lowlifes; when you kill a president, it's - he gives the word such an alluring hiss - assassination) is a way to become famous and even immortal (like Brutus, assassin of Caesar), or just to attract the notice of the celebrity you're fixated on (notoriously there's Hinckley with Jodie Foster, but also Squeaky Fromme with Charles Manson and Sam Byck* with Leonard Bernstein, among others). Booth of course was an actual actor and he shot Lincoln in a theater, but many of his fellow killers, in less formal and professional ways, are also acting various parts. Booth gives an extended talk on Death of a Salesman, in case we are missing the point that though the unsuccessful drop out of sight in most American media (which is after all driven by advertising dollars), they do have their significance in our theater.

The basic idea of the show is interesting and provocative, but it seems like one of those things that will always be more interesting and provocative as an idea, and maybe less so in its results. The problem for me is that though there seems to be a lot of potential in the general idea of using assassins rather than Presidents to take an inside-out and upside-down look at America, once you start looking at their stories in detail the general idea falls apart, because the actual motivations and circumstances of the assassins are all over the map. Some of them (like Charles Guiteau, assassin of James Garfield, and Hinckley) were mostly crazy; some (like Leon Czolgosz, anarchist assassin of William McKinley, and Booth) had definite political motivations; many (Sam Byck, Squeaky Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, Giuseppe Zangara) fall somewhere on the spectrum between insanity and political conviction. And at least one remains somewhat mysterious (Lee Harvey Oswald).

Forcing all these disparate types into one thesis can't help but feel a little superficial, even though the work tries perhaps a bit too cleverly to use the superficiality and the carnival razzle-dazzle as a way of examining the superficial (such as the simplistic, naive thinking of the assassins - if I work hard, I will be successful! if I shoot the President, I will change the world!). The music and lyrics have that distinct Sondheim tang, but are verbally and emotionally less complex than in many of his other works. Some of the more extended sequences of John Weidman's book drag a bit despite the skill of the actors because they are so obvious: yes, we (that is, "we") see Presidents as fathers, and we want Father to take care of us, and we're angry when he doesn't; yes, we (again, "we") think we know celebrities, and are angry when our insignificance is magnified by the knowledge that they don't know us.

I thought some of the more entertaining and interesting moments were provided by the lighter interactions, such as those between the bumbling Sara Jane Moore and the delusional Squeaky Fromme. ("Oh, look!" said the woman behind me, examining the cast list before the show started, "there are women!" She was certainly old enough to remember those two, though maybe she can be excused given her British accent - who knows where she was living then?). Moore and Fromme are mostly played for laughs, as is Gerald Ford in his very brief appearance, though my memory of both those assassination attempts is that at the time no one was particularly amused.

But that's fine: as I said, there's a certain amount of superficiality built into the over-broad thesis of the show, so you might as well go for the frisson of shock, and the theatrical relief of comedy, when you can. Before the performance I heard a man sitting in front of me say, "I wonder if they'll do Lincoln?" I don't see how you can take up this subject and not "do" Lincoln. Though  his assassination can provide material for sharp, keen-witted comedy (see Suzan-Lori Parks, Topdog/Underdog) here the treatment is mostly serious, and any satire is directed at Booth: the Balladeer strums his banjo, asking Why did you do it, Johnny?, calling Booth a madman, mentioning bad reviews and too much liquor, while Booth protests that his aims were lofty and noble. The assassination of Lincoln is one of the great primal tragedies of American history, its effects rippling down the many decades since then, but the thing is, it was many decades ago, and we're distant enough for at least some irony.

Distance, or more specifically the lack of same, may explain the treatment of Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. I have no memory of it, but I've noticed that many people just a year older than I am do. It must be one of their very first vivid memories. Though it's debatable (at best) whether the Kennedy assassination had a political and historical effect anywhere near that of the Lincoln assassination, it was undeniably an emotionally traumatic event for the country. Unlike the other assassins, Oswald does not appear in the opening number and takes no part in the stories of the others. It was nearing the end of the show (100 minutes, no intermission) and I was starting to think that Sondheim and Weidman had oddly omitted Lee Harvey Owald. But as with Lincoln, I don't see how you can take up this subject without "doing" Kennedy. Then the other assassins ganged up on the Balladeer, stripped him down, and turned him into Lee Harvey Oswald. Booth appears to him and they have a long, earnest conversation in which Booth tries to persuade the suicidal Oswald to shoot the President instead, arguing that by doing so Oswald will somehow validate all the rest of them. (It seems doubtful that an egomaniac like Booth would offer that role to anyone but himself, but then he's had some time on the other side to put at least certain things into perspective.) Theatrically the scene is an attempt to change and deepen the tone a bit, to move beyond shock into a larger historical and psychological view, but it's also a way to contain and pay tribute to the emotions the Kennedy assassination still evokes among many. But, you know, time shouldn't reduce our empathy; those emotions surround anyone being shot, and anyone desperate, crazy, or convinced enough to shoot. I think Assassins will always be a show whose shock pulls us in while its emotional and political limitations can't help but put us out a bit.

As for this specific production, it's very good. (This is the first time I've seen it on stage, though I have both Broadway cast albums.) The cast is strong and the staging is sharp. However, and this is going to make the show a nonstarter for some, it is (unnecessarily and inexplicably) amplified. The Ashby Stage is a small house and if your voice can't fill that space, you shouldn't be a performer. I wonder why they decided to mike everybody? I wonder if it was even up for discussion, or if the automatic assumption now is that any singing should be amplified. It's possible that only the singing was amplified, since most of the dialogue sounded more or less natural (though they may also have adjusted the sound during the performance; there seemed to be fewer problems towards the end of the show). But even though as I noted above the lyrics aren't as sophisticated and twisty as they can be in much of Sondheim's work, the result of the amplification is that above a certain volume the words were almost impossible to make out (this is a particular problem with Giuseppe Zangara, would-be assassin of FDR). People tend to listen more carefully when the sound isn't artificially pumped up (this is why opera divas come out on stage for their recital encores and murmur their thanks to the adoring crowds, who fall silent and strain to catch every word). Maybe one odd result of our world of relentless loud noise is that many people train themselves to half-listen above a certain volume. It disengages you from the actors. I wish they had taken advantage of the intimacy of the space; the actors are right there in front of us, but we're not allowed to hear their natural voices. It's like sitting next to someone who insists on shouting in your ear. Weird.

The show was directed by Susannah Martin, with musical direction by David Moschler. The Blue Ridge Boys play the music; they are Derek Brooker, Jeremy Carrillo, Amar Khalsa, Andrew Maguire, Ben Malkevitch, Jeff Patterson, Rafa Postel, and Carolyn Walter. The talented performers are Aleph Ayin (Giuseppe Zangara), Rebecca Castelli (Sara Jane Moore), Danny Cozart (John Hinckley), Ryan Drummond (Sam Byck), Jeff Garrett (Proprietor), Steven Hess (Charles Guiteau), Cody Metzger (Squeaky Fromme), Galen Murphy-Hoffman (John Wilkes Booth), Dan Saski (Leon Czolgosz), and Kevin Singer (Balladeer). They all play other parts as well, but they're listed with their primary character.

The show runs through 28 October and schedule and ticket information is here.

* Sam Byck planned to assassinate Nixon by flying a plane into the White House, which I had completely forgotten about.

Haiku 2012/274

looking to night skies
but all I see are streetlights
blotting out the stars

29 September 2012

Haiku 2012/273

autumn already -
why should I keep pulling weeds?
let them win winter

28 September 2012

the elephant in the room

Last night I was in Berkeley for the first night of the three-night run, hosted by Cal Performances, of the Theatre de la Ville-Paris's production of Ionesco's Rhinoceros, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. Cal Performances Director Matias Tarnopolsky started the evening with a short talk from the stage in which he pointed out that this was the second time the Theatre de la Ville has appeared in Berkeley; the first time was in 1906, when the group in an earlier incarnation presented Sarah Bernhardt in her legendary performance of Phedre, an event from which Cal Performances dates its existence, as well it might.

Rhinoceros, Ionesco's landmark 1959 work of the Theater of the Absurd, is another legendary moment in twentieth-century theater, one of those post-war works whose combination of menace and philosophizing absurdity got to the heart of the mid-century political situation more piercingly than any earnest "realistic" drama ever could. It is well-known that Ionesco wrote the work in response to the rise of fascism in his native Romania, and the play is often seen as an allegory of resistance to conformist totalitarian systems, which makes it sound high-minded and uplifting. It may be the historical moment to drop that particular framing (that is, limiting) of the play; the thought-provoking and lively production I saw last night made me realize that the play is stranger and richer than its reputation.

There's no need to see the play in political terms at all; as a study of individualism and conformity, it resonates in many ways not tied to specific political systems or philosophies. Anyone who's ever worked in a corporation has witnessed many rhino-metamorphoses, and indeed anyone puzzled by the strange cult fervor motivating the crowds who waited patiently for days and nights to update their iPhones to the latest release has observed the urge to be part of the pack ("it's the wave of the future!" announce the people turning into rhinos). But there's more to the play than feeling superior to the herd, and more to it even than noting the many ways people convince themselves that the herd is the only place to be. (If it were really that simple and straightforward, the play probably wouldn't be worth reviving.) The really subtle, brilliant, challenging thing that Ionesco did is that he doesn't tip the scales: once you set aside what you've been told about what the play is supposed to mean politically, you have to notice that the humans come across as a fairly shabby lot, and the rhinos don't look all that bad.

Demarcy-Mota has the play open with a passage from Ionesco's novel The Solitary. An average-looking, undistinguished middle-aged man comes out alone and talks about walking as a child through crowded streets and seeing the people as phantoms; he finds it comforting, yet he is not quite one of them - it's the classic note of urban alienation. The stage is mostly very dark (as it will be throughout), with piercing, focused white side lights on the speaker. Our average-looking undistinguished middle-aged man turns out to be Berenger (Serge Maggiani), who is indeed undistinguished, but not quite average - in fact, he's pretty much a loser. He has a drinking problem and squanders money on booze; he is unkempt and unpunctual; he longs for his coworker Daisy (Celine Carrere) but assumes he doesn't have a chance against another, more accomplished, coworker, Dudard (Philippe Demarle); he puts up little resistance to the hectoring constant lectures of his boisterous friend Jean (Hugues Quester). He can't bring himself to defend himself, but he will quarrel with Jean over whether the first rhino that charged down the street had one horn or two.

He's not a very inspiring representative of the human spirit. He's pretty much a marginal man, but it's his very inadequacies (he can't even make it to work on time) that allow him to remain human; to be blunt, he doesn't have it in him to turn into a rhinoceros. In the three acts of the play we see him first in a social setting (at a crowded cafe, where he meets the bullying Jean for a drink), then a work setting (at the publishing house that employs him, where his coworkers flirt, fight, and laugh at each other, debating the very existence of the rhino, before one appears and smashes the stairs of the office building), and finally in a romantic setting, as he and Daisy join together as apparently the last remaining humans, before she too defects. Berenger grows to hate his pale weak body, so insignificant next to the strength and purpose and joyful unity of the rhino herd, but he persists - partly out of self-loathing - in being human. At the very end, indecisive and confused, he is isolated on a height, and the stairs down have just given way with a bang, and he pauses, one foot raised out over the abyss that has just opened in front of him, feeling that he will remain human, out of perversity if nothing else.

From the beginning the humans have been close to animals (some even have animal names: Papillon, Boeuf). They bicker and talk at cross-purposes and prove by logical means the most illogical propositions; they can't even agree on what they've just seen when the first rhino runs down the street, and are quick to use the disruption of the African or possibly Asian rhino to criticize foreigners. They are spiteful to friends as well as strangers. The death by trampling of a woman's cat brings some of them together in a moment of sympathy, but I have the feeling they'd be less sympathetic if it had been the woman who had been trampled. They're all indeed individuals, but it's not really working for them; they're mostly destructive, self-serving, and short-sighted. It's a bleak world. The stage is mostly black, and the sets are strange, dark, heavy, and mechanical-looking, with boxy rooms and large walls and pillars that come crashing down. The clothes are mostly black and white. There's the occasional splash of a bright red tie or an orange phone. The eerie offstage music sounds like a distant memory, even when you first hear it. This is a very physical production, with bicycling in circles and running and shouting and the office workers slipping downward as the floors beneath them buckle under the blows of the unseen rhino in the lobby below.

The rhinos, by contrast, appear relatively stable and unified, and were looking better and better as the evening went on. At the end we see rows of their ghostly gray-green heads in the darkness, bobbing up and down. They are called destructive, but once you observe the behavior of the humans in the office you can hardly blame their former co-worker turned rhinoceros for trying to smash the place. If you unlink the rhinos from associations with specific political systems, it opens up interesting interpretive ambiguities in the play: you could even see them as a sublime force of nature. I was definitely feeling the appeal of turning into a rhino. That may not be what anyone intended, but unintended and unforeseen readings are one of the things that make a play endure.

The play is almost two hours and given without an intermission; many people blench when they hear that, but I think that's purely a psychological reaction, since many movies are longer and also don't have intermissions. But people feel freer to get up during movies (several did last night, as well, and one idiot a few rows in front of me even pulled out his iPhone at the end to record the appearance of the rhino heads - like calling to like, perhaps - though on the whole the audience, quite large for a week night production that didn't start until 8:00, was enthusiastic and attentive). An intermission would have really cut the mood and tension of the performance. It's presented in French with English surtitles; the dialogue is sometimes so quick that you miss a few things as your eyes dart up and down, but the language is simple enough so that if you have some even rudimentary French you can make out at least part of what the actors are saying.

There is one more performance, tomorrow (Saturday 29 September) at 2:00. More information is here.

Haiku 2012/272

if I had not glanced
then I would have missed the wind
bending the tall grass

27 September 2012

Haiku 2012/271

waking when one wakes
doing what one needs or wants
sweetest of all days

26 September 2012

fun stuff I may or may not get to: October 2012

OK, yes: Einstein on the Beach. But wait, there's more! In fact that's not even all that Cal Performances is presenting this month, though it does seem as if it might be enough: but there's also the Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra in Swan Lake, 10 - 14 October; Sweet Thunder, a re-orchestration by Delfeayo Marsalis of the Ellington/Strayhorn Shakespeare tribute Such Sweet Thunder, 16 October; and Ensemble Basiani, a men's chorus from Georgia (not the state in the American south, the other one), 20 October.

There's quite a pile-up on Thursday 4 October:

The Berkeley Symphony opens its season in Zellerbach Hall with Joana Carneiro conducting Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question and the Beethoven 7, along with the world premiere of Paul Dresher's Concerto for Quadrachord and Orchestra. (The Quadrachord is an instrument invented by Dresher.) The concert starts at 7:00, but unfortunately this appears to be a one-off for the season opener, as the rest of the season, which looks quite enticing, reverts to the standard-issue worker-unfriendly 8:00 start time. We office drones like to go to concerts too. . . .

The next 4 October event is Nonsemble 6 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music celebrating the centennial of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire in a performance staged by Brian Staufenbiel, resident director of the awesome and endlessly inventive Ensemble Parallele. The program also includes Dan Becker's S.T.I.C. ("Sensitivity to Initial Conditions") and Hanns Eisler's 14 Ways of Describing Rain, shown with Joris Iven's silent film Regen (Rain), which depicts 1920s Amsterdam before, during, and after a rainstorm (the score was dedicated by Eisler to his teacher Schoenberg on his 70th birthday); and honestly, you guys, you really need to check with me before scheduling something like this, because it's killing me that I have a conflict. That reminds me of attending an excellent Purcell-based performance by a group whose maiden voyage was also an inventive Purcell staging, and during the reception afterwards I remarked to some woman that I was surprised I hadn't been notified of the group earlier since the audience for artsy daring stagings of Purcell is basically me, and she looked at me with indignation and said, "Well, there are all of these people," gesturing towards the gathered dozens, and I thought, um, wow, OK . . . actually, I thought a few other things (the word "clueless" prominently and effortlessly floating along in that particular stream of consciousness). . . . It was far from the first time that I realized my brand of humor is perhaps more specialized than I like to think, the jocular equivalent of grass-fed free-range artisanal bread, but I also think that this woman had something to do with the (obviously ineffective) publicity, so she might have felt rebuked, which was completely unintentional on my part; I honestly don't remember who she was, and I have no idea if she's still in the field at all, so . . . please I'm already sunk in too far to back out - no offense (no further offense) is intended to any person, place, or thing. . . .

Let's go back to 4 October, since no doubt you're wondering what (and even at this stage I'm still weighing the pros and cons) could keep me from Pierrot Lunaire: it's the start of "Schumann: Under the Influence," a four-concert exploration of Schumann's music and influence organized by pianist Jonathan Biss, presented by San Francisco Performances. The first concert features Carey Bell on clarinet, Scott St. John on viola, and tenor Mark Padmore as well as Biss, in a program featuring Marchnerzahlungen and Fantasy by Schumann, Homage a Schumann by Kurtag, and An die ferne Geliebte by Beethoven. The second concert in the series is Saturday, 6 October; Padmore and Biss perform Schumann's Gesange der Fruhe and Dichterliebe, Berg's Sieben Fruhe Lieder, and Schubert's Heine Songs. The other two concerts are next March; you can get more information about the series here. SFP has other offerings this month as well, including the first two concerts (7 and 21 October) in another four-part series, this one featuring Andras Schiff playing Bach (co-presented with the SF Symphony and held at Davies); The Bad Plus (12 October) playing their arrangement of and tribute to The Rite of Spring, the centennial of whose celebrated Paris premiere is coming up next May; the Bay Area premiere (13 - 14 October) of the Russell Maliphant Company, presenting After Light, an exploration of the style and influence of Nijinsky and the Ballet Russes; and the Takacs Quartet playing Haydn, Britten, and Dvorak (14 October).

The other thing I'm missing because the Schumann series is the 6 October BluePrint concert at the Conservatory of Music; BluePrint, led by the awesome Nicole Paiement of Ensemble Parallele,  is the new music ensemble at the Conservatory. This year's focus is Latin America and this concert features music by Carlos Sanchez Gutierrez, Osvaldo Golijov, Clarice Assad, and Roberto Sierra.

Philharmonia Baroque presents Purcell's Dioclesian, 3, 5 - 7 October, in their usual locations, which you can remind yourself of here.

Speaking of the baroque, the California Bach Society performs the Mass in B Minor, 12 - 14 October, in a different location each day. As always, click the link for details!

Terry Riley performs with Tracy Silverman at BAM/PFA in the L@TE series, organized by Sarah Cahill; 12 October.

San Francisco Opera has a busy and promising month, with three operas in rotation: Moby Dick, I Capuleti e I Montecchi, and Lohengrin. More info here.

The San Francisco Symphony also has, you know, bunches of stuff, but nothing really jumps out at me except Yuja Wang at the end of the month, and given the lengthy list of other stuff happening this month . . . well, check it out for yourself here and make up your own mind.

The SF Playhouse presents Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in their new venue at 450 Post Street, 9 October - 24 November. Their flyer claims that Jackson's presidency "doubled the size" of the USA - uh, I'm sure Jackson was devoted to Manifest Destiny, but I think they're thinking of Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase, which really did double (at least) the size of this country. But there is more than enough that actually happened in Jackson's term in office to fill out a musical.

Speaking of musicals, and American Presidents, I think I mentioned this last month, but Shotgun Players has Sondheim's Assassins, 26 September - 28 October.

ACT presents Sophocles' Elektra, translated and adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker, with original music by David Lang, featuring Rene Augensen in the title role and Olympia Dukakis as the Chorus Leader, directed by Carey Perloff; 25 October - 18 November, and I really want to see this despite ACT's worker-unfriendly start times (I think they're the only major local theater that doesn't have at least one 7:00 start time during the work week) and user-unfriendly on-line ticketing ("best seat" available? sorry, I will only use systems that show me all available seats). Oh, they're also expensive. But I still really want to see this.

Berkeley Rep also goes Greek with An Iliad, adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare from the Robert Fagles translation. I have the impression this is a one-man show, in the style of Benjamin Bagby doing Beowulf, but I might be wrong about that. 12 October - 18 November.

Cutting Ball Theater marks the centennial of Strindberg's death (lots of stuff happened a hundred years ago. . . ) with a presentation (drumroll, please!) for the first time in any language or locale (crescendo and cymbal crash!) of all five of his Chamber Plays presented in repertory (with a few marathon, all-in-one-day sessions thrown in there). 12 October to 18 November, and check out the schedule and other details here.

And if the world (or even just the contemplation of this list) is too much with you, head over to the Asian Art Museum starting 5 October for Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy, which runs until 13 January 2013, which is sooner than you think.

Haiku 2012/270

before I knew it
clever birds had discovered
the sweet purple figs

25 September 2012

Haiku 2012/269

unless there are trees
indifferently shading
paths you travel down. . . .

24 September 2012

Haiku 2012/268

cats climb on couches
pigeons perching on a pole
stars slip through sly skies

23 September 2012

The Three Bs (Bartok, Britten, birthday)

Last night I was at the San Francisco performance of New Century Chamber Orchestra's first concerts of the season. They got a jump on the 2013 Britten centenary by scheduling the Simple Symphony and Les Illuminations, but Bartok's Divertimento, sandwiched between the two, more than held its own.

The band filed into their seats on the Herbst Theater stage, all in black with the occasional splash of peacock blue. Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg gave a brief and not really necessary preview of the season, which will include a world premiere next May by Lera Auerbach, this season's featured composer, though the featured composer for these first concerts is Britten the birthday boy. Salerno-Sonnenberg said the Simple Symphony was youthful and high-spirited and Les Illuminations was . . . not, which was amusing. This was all fine but I could have done without her assurance that the performance we were about to hear with Melody Moore was going to be the best ever. I mean, I did enjoy it very much, but I prefer not to be given instructions beforehand, as if I have no other choice.

The Simple Symphony is very enjoyable, though its antic alliterative section titles (Boisterous Bouree, Playful Pizzicato, Sentimental Saraband, and Frolicsome Finale) make the piece sound simpler than it is and don't really do justice to the stylish naivete of the actual music, though the energetic performance did. The Saraband in particular reaches depths of emotional dignity its title wouldn't lead you to expect. I also really enjoyed the delicate skittering sound of the Playful Pizzicato. The Bartok too had a bit of a misleading title, being meatier music than Divertimento might lead you to expect. When it started I was kind of surprised to discover that I knew the piece already; I would have said beforehand that I did not, but it's always gratifying to discover that one is even more knowledgeable than one thinks one is. It starts with sort of a country-jaunt sound, and at one point it seemed like very angsty salon music, and then it takes a few more turns, including a loopy pizzicato passage near the end. More pizzicato! It was an excellent selection to go with the Britten, being along the same lines but down a different track, but I thought it had more substantial qualities that almost showed up the birthday honoree, though he did reclaim the spotlight after the intermission with Les Illuminations.

I had realized I knew the Bartok but then I realized I had the wrong piece in mind for Les Illuminations, so I guess balance was restored in my little universe. For some reason I had it confused with the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. You'd think I'd have been tipped off by the French title and by a soprano rather than a tenor as the soloist. (Also the lack of a horn soloist, but let's not pile it on. . . .) Anyway this piece is actually the setting of some late (as in, written when he was around twenty) prose poems by Rimbaud, and it shows a more sophisticated and various side of Britten, as he responded to the French poet's surreal, beautiful disturbances. Moore was a vivid and strong soloist, gesturing and acting out. I wish they had had surtitles; there was a distressing amount of program rustling going on, as well as a lot more whispering throughout the whole concert than there should have been, especially since, judging from some of the overhead conversations, many of the audience members were musicians themselves. Also, three incredibly rude people came in later after the second half had started, wandered down to the front, and stepped over others to get to their seats.

There was an encore, for Moore and Salerno-Sonnenberg's solo violin: an arrangement by Clarice Assad of the famous hymn Amazing Grace and the less famous spiritual David Play Your Harp (its formal title might be a bit different). I have to say I wasn't crazy about the results. Perhaps it would have sounded better after the first half, since those pieces hearkened back to hymns, dances, and folk tunes, but the effect was a bit jarring coming after the bizarre comedy and artistic alienation of Rimbaud and the music he evoked. But more than that, I didn't like the arrangements very much: the vocal line was very traditional, and Moore sang with a lot of heart and joy (though she did tend to swallow the word "harp" each time she sang "David play your harp," which might have been her or the arrangement), but the violin part was I thought too filigreed and artsy and recessive for the style of these sacred songs.

Haiku 2012/267

bright half-moon tipping
toward the restless blue city
alone I gaze up

22 September 2012

Haiku 2012/266

summer's strapping leaves
tremble in the autumn wind
curling at their edge

21 September 2012

Haiku 2012/265

crescent moon echoes
silvery arms encircling
velvety vagueness

20 September 2012

A to Z

glances backwards and forwards. . . .

Some of my favorite concerts feature artists performing their own music. San Francisco Performances had a wonderful one last year: an evening of music by poet and composer Lera Auerbach, with Auerbach herself on piano, joined in the first half by Alisa Weilerstein on cello and soprano Lina Tetriani. I was particularly interested in this concert since I had been bowled over by The Little Mermaid at San Francisco Ballet (Auerbach composed the score). Her music is lyrical and direct and strong. She also has the gift of being able to talk to audiences about her work in a way worth hearing. The first piece, Last Letter, joined all three performers. The text is from Marina Tsvetaeva's poem Novogodneye (New Year's Greeting). Poetry is notoriously what gets lost in translation and I think I hear this said more about Russian poetry than any other and about Tsvetaeva's poems in particular perhaps most of all. Music is another, and possibly more successful, way of translating poetry.

Auerbach started by telling us a bit about the poem and then reciting it in English (I would have liked to have heard it in Russian as well, but you can't have everything). Tsvetaeva wrote it shortly after the death of Rainer Maria Rilke, which was around the 1927 new year. The two poets (as well as Pasternak) had been engaged in an intense correspondence in the year or so before Rilke's death. Auerbach mentioned the suffering of the Russian poets, and because Russian and poetic suffering is such a monumental "thing" with us, a cultural trope, a number of us laughed knowingly, which didn't seem to faze Auerbach, but I was immediately ashamed of myself; who am I to chuckle at the tremendous historical sufferings I have been spared? Auerbach recommended the collected correspondence to us, and I procured a copy as pleasant penance for my smug Americanness. Anyway that piece was followed by the Sonata for Cello and Piano, Opus 69, the second movement of which, the composer informed us, uses a theme associated with the Little Mermaid in the ballet. The second half of the concert was Auerbach solo, playing her Twenty-four Preludes for Piano, Opus 41. She has composed three sets of such preludes for different instruments (I think the others are for viola and cello, but I might be mistaken) and told us that San Francisco Performances was the only place in the world that had presented all three sets (I know I heard one other at a different concert, but I somehow missed a set). Altogether a wonderful concert.

Then last May I heard the season closer of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, which seems to be having a golden period right now, under music director Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg. Though they are a chamber orchestra they have such a full, rich, and even lush sound - lush yet precise. The concert opened with Grieg's delightful Holberg Suite, whose backward-looking elegance led nicely to the second piece on the program, Commedia dell'Arte, a world premiere by that season's featured composer, Ellen Taafe Zwilich. The first three of the four brief movements are named after famous commedia characters - the trickster clown Arlechinno, his beloved the lovely Columbina, and the boastful Capitano; the fourth movement, Cadenza and Finale, brings them all together. I thought it was a delightful piece, much fresher than actual commedia performances, with amusingly different instrumentation for each movement - for example, a toy drum for the Capitano, which captures his spirit perfectly.

After the intermission came a gorgeous performance of Schoenberg's gorgeous, emotionally rich Verklarte Nacht, and, to close out the ensemble's twentieth anniversary season, the Happy Birthday Variations by Peter Heidrich, in which the eponymous tune is played in the style of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, and Dvorak, and then as a Polka/Waltz, as film music (of the Waxman-Korngold era), as ragtime, as a tango, and then a czardas. The composers and styled are listed in the program but it's actually fun to guess what you're hearing, and though I usually loathe any variation on a guessing game I didn't cheat by looking at my program. That was fun, and the concert was near my companion's birthday, so she had a little serenade. As an encore they played a chamber-orchestra version of "Nimrod," from Elgar's Enigma Variations, which Salerno-Sonnenberg referred to as the most beautiful music in the world.

The connection between these two concerts is that, just as Zwilich was last year's featured composer for NCCO, Auerbach is this year's, with a world premiere coming next May. (More information on that here)

Haiku 2012/264

wandering in woods
burnt out down to raw bare roots
alike repining

19 September 2012

Haiku 2012/263

some days you just need
long low silent horizons,
the empty blueness

18 September 2012

Haiku 2012/262

that room was darker
than I thought when I left it
blinking into light

17 September 2012

Haiku 2012/261

objective landscapes
lie beyond the subjective
visions we assume

16 September 2012

Haiku 2012/260

summer was plenty,
abundantly turning brown:
what remains? compost

15 September 2012

Haiku 2012/259

what summer's sun grew
fall winds pluck and sweep away
awaiting winter

14 September 2012

Haiku 2012/258

glancing out at night
where did it wander, the moon,
unnoticed so long

13 September 2012

Haiku 2012/257

clouds chase each other
I watch the passing shadows
what else have I done

12 September 2012

Haiku 2012/256

a still dark morning
already the air is warm
scent of damp dead leaves

11 September 2012

Haiku 2012/255

all his worldly goods
everything he still clings to
piled up on the street

10 September 2012

Haiku 2012/254

turning on a light
against increasing darkness
sitting and reading

09 September 2012

we have always lived in the castle

Continuing my trip backwards through the San Francisco Symphony centennial season. . . .

My second-to-the-last Symphony concert of the centennial season (Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 and Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle) was just a week before the finale. I did not realize it at the time but - music aside, since in that regard both evenings were wonderful - it was going to be a complete contrast as an experience to the final concert, which was a nightmare: I write about that concert, quite entertainingly I must say - that's me, spinning my straw into gold! - here.

Back to my penultimate week. It was Thursday night so the Asian Art Museum was open late and fortunately hadn't scheduled anything that would sabotage the experience for people who were actually interested in Asian art, so I had the pleasure of meeting Lisa there for dinner and a look around the galleries. The Phantoms of Asia exhibit was spread over the whole building, though we ended up spending most of our time on the top floor, in the Indian galleries. I thought there was an intriguing idea behind Phantoms of Asia - asking contemporary artists to react to the various Asian traditions and beliefs around spirituality, the afterlife, and cosmic order - but despite a few striking pieces I found the older works on display much more interesting. Perhaps if I had been able to pay more than two fairly brief visits to the show I would have felt differently.

Anyway, on to Symphony Hall. The program opened with Jeremy Denk playing the Liszt, which seemed like luxury casting. Liszt often gets paired with Bartok, I guess because they're both Hungarian, though there is also the entertaining contrast between the former's heavenly rhapsodies (edging into that sort of ethereal spirituality which always seems really sexual) and the latter's more astringent and earthy sound. The Piano Concerto No. 1 is fairly short (about twenty minutes) with a cascading dazzle of sound that for me evoked heavy rain falling through leaves onto a window pane - and then persistently BEEP BEEP BEEP and what the hell is that? I half expected Tilson Thomas to stop the performance and wheel around like a hawk, only it didn't seem to be a device in the hall (and apparently people further back couldn't hear it at all). I think it was something - an exit or a smoke detector or wahtever- in the hall outside the auditorium. Too bad. This was one of the better audiences I've experienced in Davies (no one around me was talking, texting, unwrapping cellophane, flipping noisily through the program, kicking the back of my seat, or squeezing me in so I couldn't breathe) - how perverse of the cosmos to insist that something had to be disruptive.

They must have fixed the BEEP BEEP BEEP right before the intermission because there was no sign of it during or after the break. Denk was pretty wonderful, as was the orchestra, and I feel I should say something more perceptive, or at least appreciative, since obviously a lot of work and sweat and thought goes into tossing off Liszt with easy virtuosity, but honestly serving as the opening amuse-bouche for Duke Bluebeard's Castle is a thankless task.

Into the Castle. This performance included the usually omitted opening narration, spoken by Ken Ruta. The music begins before the narration ends, which means you mostly want the speaker to shut up so you can listen to the music - you know, the usual. I can see why this bit is usually omitted. I hardly remember what the speaker says, and that's not because I'm writing this a few months later; I had forgotten it by the time the concert ended. I just remember it had sort of an ooga-booga Grand Guignol tone that to me signaled "campy horror film" rather than "richly textured, thought-provoking music drama."

Alan Held and Michelle DeYoung were both in strong, striking voice, and the orchestra was both lush and crystalline. The production was semi-staged, but I have no comment on the staging since I couldn't see it. I was in the second row, and the singers were placed behind the orchestra, so given the height of the Davies stage compared to the front orchestra seats the singers were blocked from view except for a few occasions when I'd spot them through a thicket of violas like jungle cats through a tangled underbrush, but those sightings were only sporadic. There were some large vaguely triangular white shapes moving around occasionally above the stage and there were projections, generally of a pretty basic descriptive sort: fields of flowers, close-ups of water dripping down walls, blood, stuff like that. It didn't add a whole lot but it also didn't detract. The projections were kind of a stripped-down version of the visually richer ones that Berkeley Opera (now West Edge Opera) used in its production a few years ago.

This is a really wonderful short opera and should be done more often. For one thing, I take away different impressions every time I see it, which is a sign of a work worth revisiting. Usually I think of the Bluebeard story as very much the wife's story: her love for him, her fear and confusion over the castle's (and his) mysteries, her intellectual curiosity, her bravery in entering and confronting his world. This time it struck me as very much about him, very much the story of a man trapped inside his own mind (this should not be read as Held overpowering DeYoung dramatically, since both were perfectly matched; it's just a matter of noticing something different in a work). As with the protagonist of Die Tote Stadt, even Bluebeard's efforts to reach out only amount to drawing someone else into his painful psychic labyrinth, and there Judith remains with his other wives. Has he literally killed her? Has he psychically killed her? Does she sacrifice herself? Or is it merely an image of her, a memory of what she was to him, that remains? Over in the Indian art galleries before the concert we saw a manuscript painting showing Krishna as a cowherd. For reasons that currently escape me he has to prove to someone who he is. He opens his mouth and the person who demanded his identity staggers back, because inside Krishna's mouth, briefly, one sees the entire universe. And that was how Bluebeard struck me: as a man with the entire universe expanding inside him. What does that leave for those on the outside?

Haiku 2012/253

A cold wind rises.
Dry leaves rattle down driveways.
The light fades sooner.

08 September 2012

Chad Deity enters the Aurora, elaborately

A couple of Thursdays ago I was in Berkeley seeing a play with an all-female cast and then the Tuesday after I was back in Berkeley seeing a play with an all-male cast. It seems as if there should be some larger cultural meaning to this, but I don't think there is; I think it's merely one of those odd striking coincidences that look significant but are just haphazard. Both plays actually dealt more with class and cultural grouping than with gender.

Anyway the play with the all-male cast was The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a very recent (2010) work by Kristoffer Diaz, directed by Jon Tracy at the Aurora. It's set in the world of professional wrestling, so right there I'd like to commend the Aurora for taking it on, as I'm doubtful most of their regular audience has ever seen any wrestling matches outside of Orlando and Charles in As You Like It. Back when I lived in Boston the two main local companies were the Huntington, near Symphony Hall in Boston, and ART, the American Repertory Theater, in Harvard Square. The latter had the reputation as the more daring and experimental theater, but I used to disagree when people would say this, on the grounds that it was more daring for the Huntington to present Congreve to their more mainstream audience than it was for ART to present Beckett and Ionesco to their Harvard crowd. A play that takes professional wrestling as its prism on American life is as they say these days outside the wheelhouse of the typical Aurora audience. But most of them seemed not only open to it but to enjoy it thoroughly, though there were a couple of defections at intermission. One woman near me who was enjoying the show but hadn't been to the theater before asked me if this play was typical of what the Aurora did. I said, "Well, they're saying 'fuck' a lot more often than they do in most of the plays here," which amused her, as it was intended to.

If you haven't been to the Aurora before, it's a very small theater, with four rows of seats in a U-shape around a central stage. There were platforms in the back part of the stage but the central stage area was mostly taken up by a large ring. As we entered there were flashing red, white, and blue lights and flashy video projections on the back. Dave Maier, who was not only the Fight Director but also played several characters in the play, stood in the ring before the show and warmed up the crowd with a steady stream of comical patter, calling one large guy with big arms "Hercules" and pretending that a young woman was defeating him with her stare. He brought up a couple of volunteers from the audience and gave them quick, whispered instructions on a few pro-wrestling moves, which he then very convincingly pretended had knocked him flat. The first was a lanky teenage boy in a hoodie. The second was a tiny older woman who looked both fragile and enthusiastic. He gave each of them stage names. I forget what the teenager was called, but the woman had red hair - as someone shouted out, "She's a red-headed woman!", which made me think of Crown's song from Porgy and Bess - so I think he called her the Flamethrower. It was all very good-humored and cleverly brought the audience into the spirit of the world we were about to enter. (I did not have the usual dread and anxiety I have whenever I am threatened with any sort of audience participation.) The brief matches with the audience volunteers not only got the audience involved before the play even started, they actually helped illustrate a major theme of the play - how the "loser" of these scripted wrestling matches actually has to be a better wrestler and a better actor, using all his skill and knowledge to make it look as if the charismatic but less skilled hero is doing the work.

The scripted loser of these matches, and our Virgil through the world of pro wrestling, is Macedonio "The Mace" Guerra (Tony Sancho), a charming and talented athlete-actor who is serious about the heritage and artistic possibilities of his profession (and why not? it's completely theater). Guerra is Puerto Rican, and grew up poor in America. He ends up recruiting a smooth-talking Indian, Vigneshwar Paduar (Nasser Khan), whose patter on the basketball court had entranced Guerra's older (and less thoughtful) brothers. Their ethnic identities are crucial to the persona created for them in the arena, often as negative stereotypes (Paduar gets cast as an vaguely Middle Eastern terrorist and Guerra as a Mexican revolutionary and probably illegal immigrant, though both men want to use the story-telling possibilities of wrestling to tell different, positive stories about their people). They wrestle against various super-patriotic whites (Billy Heartland and ex-Marine Old Glory, played by Dave Maier), but the ultimate prize is the hero of the arena, Chad Deity himself. Interestingly, since this is a play very much about ethnicity/cultural stereotypes and power in America, Chad (Beethovan Oden) is a black man, whose glittering overblown boasting hides a canny, perceptive mind. But the real power behind the wrestling organization, though not exactly its brains, is a white man, Everett K. "EKO" Olson (Rod Gnapp), whose main skill (and it's not an insignificant one) is to know almost intuitively which emotional/political buttons to push to separate his audience from their money.

The whole cast is excellent, though I should single out Tony Sancho as Guerra, since he carries most of the burden of wrestling as well as narration. It's a very high-energy show, with, as you might imagine, lots of wrestling, some of it elaborately choreographed, and with lots of oversized personalities and big moments, but the actors keep their characters this side of caricature (so kudos to director Jon Tracy as well). Diaz constructs the story very skillfully, giving us enough background in wrestling so that we can read it as more than just a couple of guys in tights tossing each other around, showing us what drives these men to do what they do, and giving us enough insight into the psychology of the wrestling audience as well as the wrestling organization itself so that after Paduar goes off-script in the ring, when Guerra thinks EKO is going to be furious, we can guess that he's wrong, because of the audience's response to Paduar.

It's a very entertaining play. But there were a few moments when Guerra reminded me of the old Mad TV skit in which a proud Latino waiter would give detailed, historically informed recitations of his people's glorious culture to groups of clueless white Americans who only wanted to order cheap pseudo-Mexican food or get blasted on Cinco de Mayo or something like that. The thing is, though I recognize the importance and value of ethnic uplift, I just do not respond to it artistically; I find it limiting (anytime uplift is your main goal, you're going to have to omit a lot of reality). Guerra's impoverished but dignified Puerto Rican family is swiftly and expertly drawn in his story-telling, but doesn't he realize that his narrative of strong and proud families is ultimately just as contrived and regulated, and even stereotypical, as the wrestling narratives he objects to about patriotic "real" Americans fighting evil foreigners? What really struck me about Guerra's position in the wrestling world had nothing to do with ethnicity - he's someone we've all seen, or perhaps have been, in any corporation - he's the hard-working, hard-luck employee whose skill and dedication get things done, but whose type of intelligence and personality exclude him from stardom. In short, I think Guerra would have had a similar story no matter what his ethnic background, which is one of the reasons I find identity politics limiting and ultimately pointless. Still, there's enough other stuff going on here so that I'd recommend the show. It runs through 30 September; more information here.

Haiku 2012/252

ripening purple
figs hidden from autumn skies
by yellowing leaves

07 September 2012

Haiku 2012/251

blank expanse of day
held up only by routine:
Nothing comes to mind

06 September 2012

Haiku 2012/250

up to highest cloud,
driven down to deepest root:
a raindrop's journey

05 September 2012

Haiku 2012/249

all you floating clouds
do you ever watch us pass
as we watch you pass

04 September 2012

Haiku 2012/248

you are far away
over mountains, seas, and skies:
distant things are blue

03 September 2012

fun stuff I may or may not get to: September 2012

Given that I'm still trying to catch up on last season's stuff, I'm not sure I'm going to do any general previews of the fall season, but there will be these monthly previews as usual, so dive in and enjoy:

I am celebrating the John Cage Centenary by re-running one of my favorite pictures of myself ever (above); there I am reflected in the score of Cage's 4'33", taken several years ago at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art by SFMike. SFMoMA continues the celebration with several special events; check here for details. And while you're at the Museum don't forget to bask in the awesomeness of Cindy Sherman, on view until 8 October.

Cal Performances kicks off its season with the National Circus of the People's Republic of China (15 - 16 September), Laurie Anderson's new work, Dirtday! (18 September), and Ionesco's Rhinoceros, performed by the Theatre de la Ville (27 - 29 September).

The San Francisco Opera devotes most of the month to Verdi's great masterpiece (well, one of Verdi's great masterpieces) Rigoletto, with Bellini's I Capuleti e I Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues), featuring the awesome Joyce DiDonato, starting in at the very end of the month.

Over at the San Francisco Symphony, Semyon Bychkov conducts the Schubert Unfinished and the Shostakovich 11, The Year 1905 (12 - 15 September), and Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Mahler 5 and the west coast premiere of Drift and Providence by Samuel Carl Adams (28 - 30 September).

Hey, look! Someone around here is actually marking the Benjamin Britten Centennial! Kudos to the New Century Chamber Orchestra and their Music Director, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, for celebrating a great composer who is being completely ignored by the Opera and almost completely ignored by the Symphony (the Double Concerto is currently scheduled for a June concert). The NCCO will present Britten's Simple Symphony and Les Illuminations, along with Bartok's Divertimento, 18 - 23 September, in various locations (check here for more information.)

The San Francisco Early Music Society presents French oboe music of the late seventeenth century: suites by Francois Couperin and Francois Chauvon and arrangements of of airs serieux by Michel Lambert and Joseph Chabanceau de la Barre, 21 - 23 September, with Debra Nagy on oboe, Josh Lee on viola da gamba, and Michael Sponseller on harpsichord. Despite the organization's name, only the Sunday concert is actually in San Francisco, at St Mark's Lutheran; Fridays are in Palo Alto and Saturdays in Berkeley at St John's Presbyterian. More information here.

Sometimes it starts like this . . . you'll catch the reference if at some point you caught Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating. It used to play fairly regularly around Harvard Square back when I lived in Boston, and I would go see it almost every time it showed up (despite its length - it's over three hours), but I haven't seen it in decades and as far as I know it has never been available on any home media. It's playing at the Screening Room at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 20 - 23 September, in a new 33mm print (so what I'm really hoping for here is a DVD release, but if you can't wait, there's more information here).

The Shotgun Players present Stephen Sondheim's Assassins starting on 26 September and running until 28 October.

Starting 15 September over at the DeYoung Museum you can see major modernist works (Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, and others) from the William S. Paley Collection, on loan from the New York Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit is up until 30 December.

There are a couple of student orchestras on offer: on 21 - 22 September in Hertz Hall the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra presents the Brahms 4, Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale, and Bartok's Dance Suite, conducted by David Milnes; and on 29 September at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Alasdair Neale conducts the Conservatory Orchestra in Jolivet's Concerto pour Percussion (featuring Masako Iguchi), Louis Cruz's Calafia, and the Mahler 1.

The San Francisco Jazz Festival presents Sonny Rollins on 30 September at 8:30 in Davies Symphony Hall.

Generally I ignore the opening nights of the Opera and the Symphony because they are social rather than artistic events, but those are happening this month too. There's plenty of information available about them elsewhere, so I won't bother linking to anything, but here's a picture of some helpful ushers showing the society swells to their proper seats:

Haiku 2012/247

I had forgotten
the gentle warmth of that touch
sun on naked skin

02 September 2012

Haiku 2012/246

street scrims of gray fog
crows caw, a car passes, then
 beautiful silence

01 September 2012

Haiku 2012/245

brilliant tall buildings
up against a clear blue sky
flat like cut-out toys